There is a very important biblical text concerning how Paul shared the Gospel with a non-Jewish (Greek) audience. It is of course the very well-known passage in Acts in which Paul gives his defence of the Gospel at the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).
Actually, a brief speech to a gentile audience is recorded in Acts 14:8-19 when Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra. But the speech found in Acts 17 is the longest and most notable of such speeches. And it is likely that Luke simply offers us a précis here of what would have been a much longer speech.
Sadly, for some, this speech has been misunderstood and/or misrepresented. For example, I have had Christians who are caught up in the interfaith dialogue movement try to tell me that this passage proves that Paul thought that non-Christian religions had much truth in them, and that they basically worshipped the same God as Paul.
While it is true – because of God’s common grace – that elements of truth can be found in other religions, the way Paul took on his gentile listeners in Athens suggests a far different picture than that painted by the religious inclusivists. Indeed, Paul was quite confrontational and combative.
Sure, he sought to find common ground. But that was not so he could tell his listeners that they all pretty much believed the same thing and that the really important thing was to just try to all get along. No, Paul sought to build bridges with his listeners so that he could better present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them, and see them delivered from their false religions and their enslaving idolatry.
Paul’s speech is worth examining in more detail. Perhaps the most interesting element is how Paul is described as he tours Athens. In verse 16 we are told that “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. The word used here is a very strong one. Indeed, it comes from a Greek term from which we get the word paroxysm. John Stott makes this comment about Paul’s concern about God’s jealousy:
“So the pain or ‘paroxysm’ which Paul felt in Athens was due neither to bad temper, not to pity for the Athenians’ ignorance, nor even to fear for their eternal salvation. It was due rather to his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving idols the honour and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone. `His whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry’ (JB).”
Paul’s concern should be our concern as well, Stott reminds us: “Moreover this inward pain and horror, which moved Paul to share the good news with idolaters at Athens, should similarly move us.” Indeed, Paul was not some tourist appreciating the sights and scenery of a historically and culturally rich city. He was not impressed by the glamour, culture, sophistication and beauty of Athens.
The religious and philosophical thinking of the day was not something beautiful and potentially on a par with the Gospel. It was for Paul simply false religion with a demonic underbelly. As Gerald McDermott writes, “Paul came face to face with the religion of cultured civilization, and he concluded that it is a miasma of ignorance that leads to idolatry.”
After some days of debating in the marketplace, he was taken to Mars Hill where he was questioned about his teachings. His summons to meet the city officials there was more than a friendly invitation but perhaps less than an actual arrest. But he was asked to give an account of this ‘new god’ he was introducing to Athens.
His defence (vv. 22-31) is interesting for many reasons. He certainly challenges the religious and philosophical beliefs of the day. He finds common ground, but only to lead his listeners out of pagan darkness and into the light of the Gospel. As Ben Witherington comments,
“Throughout the speech, Luke or Paul is using various somewhat familiar notions to pass judgment on and attack idols and the idolatry involved in polytheism. In other words, what we see here is not an attempt to meet pagans halfway, but rather a use of points of contact, familiar ideas and terms, in order to make a proclamation of monotheism in its Christian form.”
The common ground Paul appeals to include “an unknown god” (v. 23), and various Greek poets and philosophers. The appeal to the unknown god was not some attempt by Paul to say that they worshipped the same God. Instead, as I. Howard Marshall comments,
“There was, to be sure, no real connection between ‘an unknown god’ and the true God; Paul hardly meant that his audience were unconscious worshippers of the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to an unknown god.”
That this is not some interfaith chat but a confrontational apologetic is seen in verses 30-31: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Ben Witherington again makes some observant comments:
“Apologetics by means of defence and attack is being done, using Greek thought to make monotheistic points. The call for repentance at the end shows where the argument has been going all along – it is not an exercise in diplomacy or compromise but ultimately a call for conversion, after a demonstration of what the Athenians obviously do not truly know about God. Familiar ideas are used to make contact with the audience, but they are used for evangelistic purposes to bolster arguments that are essentially Jewish and Christian in character.”
Or as William Larkin comments, “Each generation’s problem is that their ignorant worship is culpable, rebellious, false worship. God’s solution is not to receive more information but to make a radical turn from idolatry to the one true God (Acts 14:15; 26:20).” That of course is what biblical repentance is all about.
We read that at the end of his defensive sermon (or sermonic defence) the Councillors were divided over what he had to say. But while they wanted to put Paul under the spotlight, it was Paul who in fact had turned the spotlight on them. As Chris Wright says,
“God challenges all idolatry and will judge those who persist in it once they know the truth. So politely, but emphatically, Paul totally reversed the nature of the occasion. The Athenians presumed to sit in judgment on what they thought was another god who might appreciate their civic favours. But the reality was that they were being confronted with the God who sat in judgment upon them and called them, not to a verdict, but to repentance.”
Indeed, later in the book of Acts we see Paul giving an account of his apostolic mission before King Agrippa. He recalls his conversion, and the words of the risen Christ spoken to him at the time: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).
As Chris Wright remarks, “This is not the language of one who thought that they were worshipping the true God all along and merely needed to be told so.”
Thus we see here the biblical strategy for dealing with non-Christian religions in general, and cultured pagans in particular. Indeed, our religious situation in the West today is not unlike that encountered by Paul. As Larkin notes, “The prevailing philosophies of the West’s post-Christian era – secular humanism’s scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of postmodernism – are remarkably similar to the Epicureanism and Stoicism Paul encountered at Athens. Paul’s speech becomes a model for how to witness to the educated post-Christian mind.”
So there were points of contact but also ‘points of contradiction’. As Eckhard Schnabel explains, “The latter demonstrate that Paul does not regard the Athenians’ various systems of faith and worship as more or less identical with, or at least similar to, the Christians’ convictions concerning God, the world, humankind, history, and salvation. He does not argue for an essential continuity between the revelation of the God whom he proclaims and the convictions of pagan poets and philosophers. Instead, he disputes the Athenians’ understanding of the divine.”
The strategy is certainly one of finding common ground with non-Christian thought systems, but always with the view to better reaching the other person, not to push for some fuzzy interfaith unity. As Schnabel puts it, “Paul’s response to the religious convictions and practices of his pagan audience was, in the end, not accommodation but confrontation.”
So it must be with us. We must lovingly yet firmly confront those who do not yet possess the glorious Gospel of Christ. At the end of the day, all other religious and philosophical systems are false paths. They may contain aspects of truth, but ultimately they cannot make us right with the one true God. Only Christ, and Christ alone, can do that.